News Analysis

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Eilis O'Hanlon: Sometimes it's not so hard to be a woman

The sisterhood should stop whining and be grateful for having it so good in today's Ireland, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 28/10/2012 | 05:00

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FEMINISTS love statistics. Providing they're the "right" ones, of course.

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Earlier this year, the Irish Times (who else?) even ran an article listing 10 reasons to be a feminist which, in the first paragraph alone, managed to drag out that old chestnut about women doing 66 per cent of the world's work but earning only 10 per cent of the income and owning only 1 per cent of the property.

It then tossed in a figure of 70 per cent for the number of women who are victims of violence, before topping it off with a complaint that a mere 15 per cent of TDs are female, though surely that's women's fault, since we do make up 50 per cent of the electorate and, in my experience, are rarely compelled by force when in the voting booth to tick the box marked Anyone With Testicles.

The National Women's Council of Ireland (NCWI) liked the article so much that it reprinted it on its website, together with another citing some EU report listing Ireland as 26th out of 34 countries when it comes to putting women in the boardroom -- a situation for which gender quotas are, apparently, the only answer since the recession was the fault, and I quote, of "bad decisions made in testosterone-filled rooms". Which isn't a sexist remark, by the way, because women can't be sexist. Especially not feminists.

Funnily enough, there has, so far, been no sign on the NCWI website of last week's report from the World Economic Forum, which found that Ireland is one of the top five countries in the world in which to be a woman. We're way ahead of Britain, Germany and the US -- whilst France, often held up as the paradigm of civilised European life, languishes in 56th place. Far from trumpeting this good news from the rooftops, Irish feminists have been curiously quiet. All statistics are equal, but some are clearly more equal than others. Or did the study simply slip the NCWI's attention?

Most of us already knew, of course, that when it comes to the gender lottery, we have basically won, if not the jackpot, then certainly five numbers plus the bonus ball. Not everything is perfect; there are things that we can and should change. We'll keep working hard to do just that. But, basically, we're doing well. Given a choice of anywhere in the world to be a woman, we couldn't pick many better places than right here.

In Ireland, alas, to be a feminist is to be trapped in a world of full-time whining, where one's entire sense of self as a woman is based on never acknowledging any progress. They always manage to find the dark cloud in every silver lining. To them, women are perpetual victims who will never climb out of the morass of their oppression unless the odds are fixed in their favour. An entire industry has grown up around feminism that depends for its cushy existence on Irishwomen being in the halfpenny place -- and now that myth has been blown out of the water by the World Economic Forum. Not that it will stop the same slogans and complaints being rehashed endlessly in the run-up to December's Budget. The National Women's Council and the Irish Feminist Network even co-hosted a seminar earlier this month which purported to examine "increasing evidence that the recession is having a disproportionate effect on women"; and just to ram the point home, the event was titled "Bearing The Brunt".

But a report entitled Ireland In Crisis: Women, Austerity and Inequality includes statistics which can be read as telling a rather different story than the one suggested by the report's title.

Far from being crushed by recession, what the figures show is that young women are now more likely to be in employment than young men, and that professions dominated by women have contracted slower -- "or, in some cases, expanded" -- during the recession. The report shows that 53 per cent of those working in "professional" occupations are now women, as well as 75 per cent of clerical and secretarial staff, 63 per cent of "professional and protective services", 63 per cent of sales and 60 per cent of financial, insurance and real estate. In health and social work, it's a massive 80 per cent.

Moreover, whilst the numbers of women emigrating from Ireland has now caught up with men, many of these are non-nationals; among Irish citizens, 65 per cent of emigres are still male. The report also admits that "wage rates are higher" in the public sector, where female employment is at its highest. Given the figures, not only would it be hard to argue that Ireland is a bad place to be a woman, it could actually be said that the best advice any parent could give to a child right now is: be a girl.

Though not, it should be added, if you're a lone parent. They remain among the most disadvantaged groups in society, and are destined to get more disadvantaged again as new benefit rules come into operation. But whilst three-in-four lone parents are women, that's no justification for other women to hitch their way to easy victimhood on the back of a group to which they do not belong -- any more than pampered yummy mummies should be claiming some generalised gender discrimination because only 1 per cent of property worldwide (itself a dubious statistic, but we'll let it pass for the sake of argument) is owned by people with the similar reproductive organs. Yet still they whine because it's simply too much fun to stop.

Last week, welcoming the appointment of Concern's CEO Tom Arnold as chair of the new Constitutional Convention, Eoin Murray -- who is coordinator of the National Women's Council's Women in Politics project -- actually said "women in Ireland do not have a right to food, to health or to a decent standard of living", and he called on Arnold to view Constitutional reform "through the lens" of women's rights.

What sort of insane picture of women's lives in Ireland is being painted by this melodramatic rhetoric? Is it just women who should be given these "rights", pray tell, or will men be permitted to have a certain standard of living too? What matters is not the symbolic and unenforceable "rights" that a piece of paper assigns to us but the actual lives we lead, and the World Economic Forum has quantified that. This is the fifth best place in the world to be a woman. We should keep striving to climb the table further, but we should never forget to be grateful for what we have instead of grinding our teeth over what we don't.

Sunday Independent

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